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Posted: February 27, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Water authority exploring benefit of railroad corridor

Whenever the county builds Bear Creek Reservoir in the southern part of the county, it will have to build the water infrastructure to pump that water to the rest of the county.

In lieu of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority having to pay land owners to cross their land with water pipes, could the authority, and by association water customers, save money and run a water main down the 15 miles of unused Norfolk Southern railroad corridor?

Water authority director Mike Hopkins said his staff is exploring the possibility, but it still needs a lot of information before the project can be deemed feasible.

While railroad purchase opponents aren't sold on the benefits of converting the railroad to a trail, significant future cost savings could be a more universally appealing argument. Hopkins said at this point he doesn't know how much money could be saved if the corridor was available for use in the future.

"From a paper standpoint (the project) looks feasible, but there are so many things to consider other than just the map," Hopkins said Friday. He said the authority is only researching the project for its potential to transport water. The authority is not involved in any future trail discussions.

Hopkins said issues the authority needs to explore include whether: the corridor crosses historic landmarks, street intersections or rivers; there are any chemical issues stemming from creosote, the chemical used to protect railroad ties from wear; there is adequate railroad right-of-way along the entire corridor path. In addition, the Bear Creek Reservoir is likely still several years away from completion.

He hopes that the authority will have more information by the end of March.

Norfolk Southern sent an e-mail to local officials Thursday saying that it wants to make progress toward selling the corridor by the end of the first quarter, March 31.

"I have asked our company to hold on any action until the end of the first quarter; so, we need to move this transaction along," Norfolk Southern real estate manager Robert L. Williams wrote in a Feb. 24 e-mail to local officials. The e-mail was obtained through an Open Records Request.

"While I realize (the county has) a new commissioner and has been dealing with our broker, Bill Butler, may I strongly suggest that we move this transaction along? Additionally, I have received the appraisal valuing the corridor and, believe me, Newton Trails and the county is getting a real deal for property of which we own mostly in fee simple," Williams continued. "While our company is patient, we can’t continue to delay our next steps in the process, possible abandonment which may result in the loss of the corridor, much longer.

"Conversely, if Newton County can’t put the deal together, we understand and Norfolk Southern will proceed with the next step in the process: abandonment and removal of the track and selling the corridor to various buyers and/or adjacent property owners."

At her state of the city address Thursday evening, Mayor Kim Carter said that local governments would have to come up with about $900,000 to purchase the railroad. The county has a little more than $1 million in federal grants that can be used for the purchase, which would put the total price at around $2 million.

Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan has been the most active proponent of purchasing the railroad and has met with Norfolk Southern representatives many times. He said Friday that no dollar figures have yet been exchanged and that the price would still have to be negotiated.

He hopes to get a letter of intent to purchase signed with Norfolk Southern so that the two sides can finally begin negotiating a price.

He added that he believed the corridor would be well suited to hold a water main. He said that if the water authority did not have access to the corridor it could have to negotiate easements across 181 separate parcels of land.

"A water main pipeline would be 36 to 42 inches minimum to bring water up to the county. If they put the pipe in the railroad (corridor), it means there would be much fewer parcels to negotiate with," said Sheridan, a former civil engineer. "When you take the right-of-way or easement for a pipeline through people’s property, you get all kinds of things. One or two people could hold up the project for years. They could sue or say I don’t like the price (you’re offering)."

Sheridan strongly believes the corridor should be purchased and he believes the county should be the one to purchase it.

Currently, a public-private partnership between the Newton County Trail Path Foundation and the governments of Mansfield, Newborn, Oxford and Porterdale has been negotiating with Norfolk Southern representatives.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners controls the $1 million in grant money, but it has not yet voted on whether it wants to pursue the railroad purchase since discussions began a few years ago. Chairman Kathy Morgan said Saturday that the board has not expressed any desire to revisit the matter, and she did not expect the county to take any further action.

The Covington City Council voted 5-1 in April 2010 to not pursue a railroad purchase. Carter said in a Friday e-mail that she plans to discuss the railroad purchase with the council soon, but has not set a date.

Newton Trails Chairman Maurice Carter clarified in a Sunday e-mail that his organization has spent $19,033 in 2010 on legal, professional and consulting fees to investigate whether the railroad corridor could be used as a trail in the future. The non-profit agreed in the original Memorandum of Understanding to raise private funds to cover such expenses, but has never intended to raise money for the actual purchase. Maurice Carter had said Thursday night that some local businessmen might contribute to such a purchase.

While discussions have taken place with Congressman Austin Scott's office about possibly moving the federal grants from Newton County to another entity, Maurice Carter said the best thing would be for the county and all county groups to be involved.

The original publically released price for a 14.9 mile section of the railroad — from Porterdale to just north of Newborn — was $1.8 million.

However, the two sides have now agreed to include even more land in the deal and to extend the railroad purchase into downtown Porterdale on the north end to all the way through Newborn’s city limits on the south end.

The majority of the Norfolk Southern rail line that runs through Newton County has not been used since the middle of the 2009.

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